How America Has Changed Since the First Census in 1790

Conducting a census and counting the American population every 10 years has been a practice since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1790.

Besides being a growing source of economic, demographic, and social information about the nation’s people and being used to determine how many Congressional seats and electoral votes each state receives, the questions asked by each version of the census and the answers received show how the country has changed amid colonization, war, immigration, civil rights movements, and a growing economy.

The census also guides federal funding for many public programs, including those in the realm of healthcare, highway planning, and education.

The first few decades of the census excluded numerous groups of people, and put the emphasis on counting free white men for the purposes of comparing how many of them would potentially be able to work or fight in the military, if necessary.

In the nearly 230 years since then, however, the census has grown to collect data on every group and individual living in the United States, and can also provide a wealth of data on topics such as education levels, types of households and family relationships, and even commuting times to work.

With preparations for the 2020 census underway, the question on the minds of many U.S. politicians and Supreme Court judges is whether to add a controversial one to next year’s edition. The Trump administration has proposed asking each household how many of its members are U.S. citizens.

In a time where politicians are heavily divided on the topic of illegal immigration, many who oppose adding the question worry that it would lead to fewer responses overall from people who fear deportation or legal action if they reveal that they are not citizens, and this will lead to inaccurate population counts.

Still, those who support adding the question defend their choice because the government will have a better knowledge of who can vote and would be able to enforce the Voting Rights Act and legitimate elections better as a result.

In preparation of the upcoming judgment on the citizenship question, and the census being distributed, Stacker looked back at historical data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and compared how both the people have changed and how the questionnaire itself has changed since the first census was released.

As questions keep evolving throughout the decades and response collection improves with new technology, the initial goal of the decennial census will always be to account for every person living in America as efficiently as possible.

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